“I need to tell you something.” My mom said. “Okay.” I prepared myself for something tragic, when instead I heard, “I’m not Catholic anymore, I just thought you should know.”
My mother’s religious coming out was overshadowed by the more familiar kind of coming out that had occurred five years prior. I was seventeen years old when she announced she was a lesbian. I am as aware as I can be of how difficult coming out was for my Mom. It was something she had been grappling with for the 30 years of my parents’ marriage. But this new announcement baffled me at the time; somehow leaving Catholicism seemed much more entwined in her life long identity.
When I was six years old she graduated from college with a BA in Religious Studies and began work on her masters in Theology, but her dedication to the academic study and practice of religion and Catholicism began long before she decided to go to college. Hoping to achieve the fullest expression of her faith, she joined a convent when she was eighteen. During her year there she slowly realized that though she felt called in some capacity, she didn’t feel that it molded into the life of a nun. She left the convent, married my father and began our family. She became an active member of the local church, and assisted and led community service projects throughout our town.
The Next Best Thing
When she began college and fell into the scholarly study of Catholicism, she found the venue she was looking for—to know the religion as wholly as she could, so she could spread that knowledge to others. The priest-hood was unavailable, so she turned to the next best thing—teaching.
She put together high school courses in Peace and Justice and Bioethics at the Catholic school my siblings and I would all at some point attend. She took to teaching naturally, and improvised her classes with a skillful flourish. This 4’11” woman could take problem students and reveal them as lumps of love to less compassionate teachers. She taught students to question what it really meant to be merciful, and understood and deciphered Scripture the way prize fighters analyze the angle of a punch.
Once she was deep into learning Greek and Hebrew, she began the earnest process of ensuring that I received an “accurate” religious education.
“What did they teach you today?” she would ask after I came home from my Catholic Grammar School. After watching, slightly amused, while I nervously rattled off Pre Vatican II concepts of Catholicism and sloppy interpretations of the Bible, my mother would re-teach me the lesson. She showed me her thick study bible, covered in notes. She pointed to the original Greek or Hebrew, “That word has six meanings, none of which is the one they taught you today.”
The Greatest Act of Defiance
She handled it all when it came to religion. She changed the face of God as I was learning. Despite the fact that there were issues she didn’t quite agree with (such as the role women played in the church, and its general response to homosexuality and divorce), her thinking was that Catholicism, like all religions, is managed by human beings, so flaws are inevitable. With this knowledge she threw all of herself into elevating the Catholicism she knew to the foreground. She taught me that to turn the other cheek was not simply an act of submission, but was, rather, the greatest act of defiance. I learned early on to read everything with a sense of history—to question who the writers were and why they may have written what they did. She found religion in everything, in the most positive way. There was always some thing that led to the Eucharist—that came close to that ultimate moment of the community the Church provides.
Eventually, my brother and my sister both decided that, though they remained spiritual, there was no religion that could suit them fully, least of all Catholicism. My mom seemed physically pained by this, particularly because both of them admitted they had been turned off by a contradiction a teacher had made in class or Priest had made during a sermon. My mom was faced with the impossibility of her task and the confines of her religion—she was an expert but not an authority; neither priest nor nun. Though she was often successful at comforting those who felt pushed outside of the religion, she could not effectively save the Church’s reputation in their eyes.
I took advantage of this weakening in my Mother’s religious armor. I propelled myself off the privilege being the youngest child affords and told her casually that I didn’t want to go to church anymore. The God my mother taught me to see was not the God I learned about in school, and was rarely the God I found at Mass. Rather than a direct translation it seemed, instead, to be an entirely different language. The God I learned from my mother was wholly compassionate, free of judgment and always forgiving. She made it clear that this God was at the heart of Catholicism. Unfortunately, this God was not always as recognizable in the institutions I was attending. I found myself always in the position of arguing with friends who saw only negatives or vocally disagreeing with teachers who I felt provided incorrect information. I was tired and frustrated and a teenager, so she let it be.
In the way only a teenager can be I was too unaware of what was happening in my mother at this time. She began the process of coming out, and in a frightening shift, I watched her place in our little Jersey shore-town world change in every context, but I think most heartbreakingly in her religious one. While our family worked through its own tumultuous drama, my mom faced the reality of coming out publicly and actively in a Catholic context. Where she had once been as close to the center of her Theological world as a woman can be, she was moved, harshly to its perimeters. Service opportunities became scarce and calls stopped being returned. The community she worked so hard to build and strengthen no longer welcomed her.
When she finally confessed she was no longer Catholic, I naively suggested she convert to Episcopalian. I was thinking of Bishop Gene Robinson, an openly gay man.
“You could get ordained,” I offered. The idea of it was more exciting to me than it was to my mother.
“You aren’t the first one to say that.” Then, sighing the way she tends to, with a movement of her whole body, “I had more education in the seminary than most soon to be Priests. I’m not ready to join another religion. What I want is to feel welcomed in my own faith, as a woman who has a lot to offer the Church.”
Strangely, I wasn’t sure where this left me spiritually. For her to release these last strings tying me to Catholicism meant the reality of my own fate—religion less. Despite my own complaints about the religion, there was always something beautiful about Catholicism when given the opportunity to see it through the eyes of my mother. I don’t want to believe that the religion my Mom saw never actually existed. I hope that some day she once again feels welcome to offer her immense gifts within the Church community she’s worked and cared for so completely, while still fulfilling the truest expression of herself.